Ranking MLB's Top 25 Free Agents on the Market

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 1, 2020

Ranking MLB's Top 25 Free Agents on the Market

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Not unlike the winter that lies ahead, the free-agent market for the 2020-21 Major League Baseball offseason has been cold thus far.

    All the same, it's time for a fresh look at the top 25 players on the market.

    Notably, stars such as Marcus Stroman, Kevin Gausman, Charlie Morton, Mike Minor and Robbie Ray are already spoken for. In ranking the best of the remaining rest, we considered players' recent track records and how their ages and peripheral stats might impact their future productivity.

    We'll begin with some honorable mentions and then count 'em down.

Honorable Mentions

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    James Paxton
    James PaxtonKathy Willens/Associated Press

    Infielders

    • C Jason Castro
    • RF Adam Eaton
    • OF Brett Gardner
    • INF Jedd Gyorko
    • INF/OF Enrique Hernandez
    • INF Brad Miller
    • C Yadier Molina
    • 1B Mitch Moreland
    • OF Kevin Pillar
    • INF/OF Jurickson Profar
    • RF Yasiel Puig
    • C Wilson Ramos
    • 1B Carlos Santana
    • 2B Jonathan Schoop
    • 2B Kolten Wong

          

    Starting Pitchers

    • RHP Chris Archer
    • LHP J.A. Happ
    • RHP Corey Kluber
    • RHP Jake Odorizzi
    • LHP James Paxton
    • RHP Rick Porcello
    • LHP Jose Quintana
    • RHP Adam Wainwright

          

    Relief Pitchers

    • RHP Tyler Clippard
    • RHP Shane Greene
    • RHP Greg Holland
    • RHP Jeremy Jeffress
    • RHP Trevor May
    • LHP Jake McGee
    • RHP Mark Melancon
    • RHP Roberto Osuna
    • RHP Sergio Romo
    • RHP Joakim Soria
    • RHP Blake Treinen
    • LHP Justin Wilson

25-21: Kirby Yates-Garrett Richards

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    Garrett Richards
    Garrett RichardsTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    25. RHP Kirby Yates

    2020 WAR: -0.3

    2021 Age: 34

    This was a lost year for Yates, who made only six appearances before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery in August. Yet memories of his 2018 and 2019 campaigns, in which he had a 1.67 ERA and a 6.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and devastating splitter should bring attention his way this winter.

         

    24. OF Robbie Grossman

    2020 WAR: 1.0

    2021 Age: 31

    Can Grossman's career-best 130 OPS+ from 2020 be trusted? In light of his age and his less-than-convincing peripherals, probably not. Nonetheless, any switch-hitter with some power and speed and a capable glove deserves some looks on the open market.

         

    23. 2B Cesar Hernandez

    2020 WAR: 1.5

    2021 Age: 31

    After he was non-tendered by the Philadelphia Phillies, Hernandez responded by hitting .283 with an AL-high 20 doubles and Gold Glove-winning defense for Cleveland in 2020. It's unlikely he'll improve on that performance, but it's indicative of his abilities as a defender and top-of-the-order hitter.

          

    22. RHP Alex Colome

    2020 WAR: 1.0

    2021 Age: 32

    Colome emerged as an All-Star back in 2016 and has persisted as a late-inning ace by way of a 154 ERA+ over the last four seasons. As marked by his 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings this past season, he doesn't miss many bats. He is, however, generally good at stifling hard contact on balls in play.

            

    21. SP Garrett Richards

    2020 WAR: 1.0

    2021 Age: 33

    If nothing else, Richards made it through 2020 unscathed after four straight injury-shortened seasons. He also displayed mid-90s velocity and elite spin on his fastball and curveball. As such, there's reason to believe he has upside beyond the 4.03 ERA he posted this past season.

20-16: Taijuan Walker-Andrelton Simmons

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    Andrelton Simmons
    Andrelton SimmonsKyusung Gong/Associated Press

    20. SP Taijuan Walker

    2020 WAR: 1.3

    2021 Age: 28

    Though Walker posted a 2.70 ERA in 11 starts this past season, his peripherals painted a less-convincing picture of his dominance. Even still, his youth and stuff—his fastball routinely touched the mid-90s in 2020—make him a compelling upside play.

         

    19. LHP Brad Hand

    2020 WAR: 0.7

    2021 Age: 31

    Hand hit the market after Cleveland declined the three-time All-Star's $10 million option for 2021. Though his diminished velocity might have influenced that decision, his still-nasty slider helped him whiff 29 batters with a 2.05 ERA in 22 innings this past season.

         

    18. C James McCann

    2020 WAR: 1.2

    2021 Age: 31

    Though he hasn't done much against right-handers, McCann has tallied a solid .808 OPS with 25 home runs over 149 games since the start of 2019. He also improved his framing in 2020. At the least, he's a good platoon option behind the dish.

          

    17. CF Jackie Bradley Jr.

    2020 WAR: 1.8

    2021 Age: 31

    Bradley is coming off one of his better offensive seasons, yet his inconsistency in that department makes it hard to trust that he'll keep it up. His elite defense, however, could age well given that he's never needed elite speed to get it done in center field.

         

    16. SS Andrelton Simmons

    2020 WAR: 0.3

    2021 Age: 31

    Simmons has dealt with ankle injuries in each of the last two seasons, and it's somewhat alarming that his defense was in the red for outs above average and defensive runs saved. With good health, though, he might reestablish himself as a Cooperstown-level defender who also rarely strikes out on offense.

15-11: Tommy La Stella-Justin Turner

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    Justin Turner
    Justin TurnerEric Gay/Associated Press

    15. INF Tommy La Stella

    2020 WAR: 0.5

    2021 Age: 32

    A broken leg derailed La Stella's All-Star breakout in 2019, yet he kept up the good work in 2020 and is now sitting on an impressive 122 OPS+ over his last two seasons. Provided that he plays primarily against right-handers, he's as good a utility infielder as there is right now.

         

    14. OF Joc Pederson

    2020 WAR: -0.4

    2021 Age: 29

    Following a failed trade to the Los Angeles Angels, Pederson went on to have the worst season of his career in 2020. Yet he's still young by free-agent standards, and his history against right-handed pitching—i.e., an .849 OPS and 121 of his 130 home runs—is a big selling point.

          

    13. SP Masahiro Tanaka

    2020 WAR: 0.7

    2021 Age: 32

    Tanaka isn't the top-of-the-rotation starter he was between 2014 and 2016, and there's also the matter of his partially torn UCL. Yet he was an All-Star as recently as 2019, and he tackled 2020 with a 3.56 ERA in 10 outings. Health permitting, he has the goods to carry on as a mid-rotation arm.

          

    12. RHP Trevor Rosenthal

    2020 WAR: 1.2

    2021 Age: 31

    After sitting out 2018 due to Tommy John surgery, Rosenthal's comeback in 2019 was a disaster marked by 26 walks in 15.1 innings. But in 2020, he worked his fastball at an average of 98.0 mph and tallied only eight walks next to 38 strikeouts in 23.2 innings. He's an All-Star-caliber closer once again.

          

    11. 3B Justin Turner

    2020 WAR: 1.3

    2021 Age: 36

    Turner is now in his mid-30s, and both his defense and power are past their prime. It nonetheless says a lot about his hitting acumen that he could post a .307 average and .400 on-base percentage in a "down" 2020 season. He'd fit well in the middle of just about any batting order.

10. SS Didi Gregorius

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    2020 WAR: 0.9

    2021 Age: 31

    Didi Gregorius played only 82 games in 2019 due to his recovery from Tommy John surgery, yet he's still clubbed more home runs as a shortstop since 2016 than all but three players.

    That points to what Gregorius does well offensively, which is namely putting the ball in play (e.g., only 28 strikeouts over 60 games in 2020) with a swing that generates fly balls to his pull side. Defensively, ultimate zone rating has generally rated him as an above-average shortstop.

    However, Gregorius doesn't rate well for defensive runs saved and outs above average. He also has surprisingly little pop for such a seasoned home run hitter. To wit, he ranked in the 2nd percentile with his 83.8 mph exit velocity in 2020.

    Despite these downsides, Gregorius should be in line for a multiyear deal a la the three-year, $38 million contract Zack Cozart signed in December 2017.

9. SS Marcus Semien

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    2020 WAR: 0.3

    2021 Age: 30

    Behold one of the most frustrating free agents in recent memory.

    Had Marcus Semien hit the market last winter, he could have capitalized on a season that made him a finalist for the American League MVP award. Between his .892 OPS, 33 home runs and 12 defense runs saved, he ranked second in the AL with 8.9 rWAR.

    But in 2020, Semien plummeted to a .679 OPS—apparently with good luck, no less—and minus-five defensive runs saved. This performance wasn't that far out of line with what he'd done between 2013 and 2018, wherein he averaged a .713 OPS with only one standout season on defense (2018).

    Given the wide gap between his upside and downside, Semien will likely have to choose from one-year offers. Should he revert to his 2019 form in 2021, he'll be able to set his sights on a much bigger payday next winter.

8. RHP Liam Hendriks

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    2020 WAR: 1.4

    2021 Age: 32

    Between 2011 and 2018, Liam Hendriks was a journeyman who posted a below-average 87 ERA+, first as a back-end starter and then as a middle reliever.

    Since 2019, however, he's morphed into one of the most dominant closers in baseball. He's handled 110.1 innings and allowed only 22 earned runs for a 1.79 ERA with 137 more strikeouts than walks.

    Hendriks' transformation is owed largely to a fastball that sits in the 96-97 mph range with superb rising action. Sustaining that will be the key to his success going forward, and his age naturally allows for some skepticism in that regard.

    Still, there's little question Hendriks is the top reliever on this winter's market. He should get somewhere between Will Harris (three years, $24 million) and Will Smith (three years, $39 million) money in his next deal.

7. LF/DH Michael Brantley

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    2020 WAR: 1.5

    2021 Age: 34

    Hitters don't come much purer than Michael Brantley. 

    Since 2014, he's hit at a .311 clip thanks largely to two fundamental talents: He's both hard to strike out and hard to defend. His strikeout rate has maxed out at just 15.0 percent during this span, and he's generally been a line-drive hitter who uses the whole field.

    In light of his age, injury history and subpar speed, Brantley is more of a designated hitter than a left fielder at this point. That plus his modest power will likely limit his market to short-term offers with annual salaries worth no more than the $16 million he made in 2019 and 2020.

    If so, Brantley is a potential bargain. Even if he's getting to be a one-note player, that one note can sustain him at the top or in the middle of any given batting order.

6. DH Nelson Cruz

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    2020 WAR: 1.6

    2021 Age: 40

    Consistency, thy name is Nelson Cruz.

    Cruz averaged a .916 OPS and 41 home runs per season between 2014 and 2019. The pandemic-shortened schedule for 2020 barred him from pursuing yet another 40-homer campaign, but he carried on with a .992 OPS and 16 homers in 53 games.

    What separates Cruz from other hitters isn't complicated. The six-time All-Star is a very large man at 6'2", 230 pounds, and he hits the ball hard accordingly. Since 2015, he tops the charts with 331 barrels—those being balls hit with an ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle.

    Because Cruz is already 40 years old and strictly a designated hitter, his quest for a two-year deal may not pan out. Regardless, whoever lands him for 2021 should enjoy one of the sport's most dangerous middle-of-the-order sluggers.

5. 2B DJ LeMahieu

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    2020 WAR: 2.8

    2021 Age: 32

    There were plentiful scoffs when the New York Yankees signed DJ LeMahieu in January 2019. After all, it was fair to question how he would hit away from Coors Field.

    Quite well, as it turns out. LeMahieu racked up a stellar .336/.386/.536 slash line in two seasons with New York. That's life when a guy strikes out only 111 times in 871 trips to the plate with more hard-hit balls than everyone except Jose Abreu.

    The one thing LeMahieu obviously had going for him when the Yankees signed him was a defensive track record that included three Gold Gloves at second base. He's not that guy anymore, and the last two seasons have seen him post pedestrian metrics while bouncing around the infield.

    That and LeMahieu's rejected qualifying offer will hinder his market, but he should still have a shot at a three- or even a four-year deal.

4. LF/DH Marcell Ozuna

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    2020 WAR: 2.3

    2021 Age: 30

    Even as Marcell Ozuna was putting up modest numbers for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018 and 2019, there was one silver lining: His underlying metrics suggested he was actually an elite hitter.

    As such, it wasn't that surprising that Ozuna broke out like he did in 2020. His 1.067 OPS and NL-high 18 home runs were out of character, but his marks for exit velocity (96th percentile) and hard-hit rate (97th percentile) were par for the course.

    While teams have license to expect further offensive excellence from Ozuna, his defense is another matter. His arm hasn't been the same since he injured his shoulder in 2018, and his speed has declined from above-average to merely average.

    But especially now that he's free of the qualifying offer, Ozuna should nonetheless find a multiyear deal worth close to nine figures.

3. CF George Springer

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    2020 WAR: 1.9

    2021 Age: 31

    George Springer debuted in 2014 and was a star by 2015. He ranked fifth among outfielders in rWAR between then and 2019, which isn't even counting his outstanding production in the postseason.

    After the Houston Astros' sign-stealing schemes came to light this January, it was natural to wonder if Springer and his teammates would be revealed as frauds in 2020. Instead, his strikeout rate dropped, and his peripherals remained outstanding as he compiled an .899 OPS and 14 homers.

    In lieu of sign-stealing concerns, Springer's true red flags are rooted in his age. He's slower than he used to be, so he's probably not long for regular duty in center field.

    It's a good thing, then, that Springer has more than enough offensive talent to earn a living as a right fielder. Despite his rejected qualifying offer, he should end up with a nine-figure contract. 

2. C J.T. Realmuto

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    2020 WAR: 1.2

    2021 Age: 30

    The "Best Catcher in Baseball" label doesn't tend to stick with any one player for very long. Right now, however, it's firmly in J.T. Realmuto's hands.

    Over the last five years, Realmuto has averaged an .803 OPS with a peak of 25 home runs in 2019. He's also as well-rounded as they come defensively and has earned elite placements for both his framing and his catch-and-throw times.

    Because he'll be on the wrong side of 30 come March 18, it's fair to question how long Realmuto can keep this up. As it is, his rising swing-and-miss rate against fastballs is already contributing to a spiking strikeout rate.

    Of course, it reflects well on him that one must dig so deep to find nits to pick. Even after rejecting a qualifying offer, Realmuto should have enough suitors to command a nine-figure contract.

1. SP Trevor Bauer

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    2020 WAR: 2.7

    2021 Age: 30

    With respect to AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber, the best pitcher in baseball for 2020 was arguably the Cy Young winner in the National League.

    Trevor Bauer's results included an NL-best 1.73 ERA and a 100-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 73 innings, and his peripherals were no less impressive. He notched elite spin rates on his fastball (100th percentile) and curveball (92nd percentile), and he actually had a lower expected ERA than Bieber.

    While Bauer's 2020 performance lines up well with his All-Star effort in 2018, his other seven seasons offer little in the way of ace-like numbers. In fact, his career ERA is just 4.39 if one removes his '18 and '20 campaigns.

    Bauer will surely be treated like an ace on the open market anyway. Though his rejected qualifying offer won't help him, he should surpass $30 million per year in a multiyear deal.

          

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.